1 Different approaches to teaching grammar

Pause for thought

If you can, discuss the following questions with a colleague.

  • Do you have students in your classes who find it difficult to remember the grammar rules?
  • Do you have students who remember the rules but still achieve only low grades?

Some students will not spend time or effort learning the grammar rules, but other students will be like the student above: they will try to learn the rules but will find it difficult to remember them Even if they can remember them, they still need time to think of and apply the rules.

A language cannot be learned through rules alone. Language learners need to use the language to become fluent, and not just learn about it. They need to see and hear lots of examples of language being used, in order to understand how it is used.

Now read about the experiences of a Class X student.

Pause for thought

If you can, discuss these questions with a colleague:

  • Do you have students like this in your classes?
  • Why do you think they have problems speaking in English, even though they may get good grades for grammar?

Some students may be able to do written grammar exercises very well, but that does not always mean that they are able to use it well when they are writing or speaking English. To use grammar effectively, students need to be able to practise it in different kinds of speaking and writing situations – not just grammar exercises or tests.

Activity 1: Approaches to teaching English grammar

There is no ‘right’ way to teach English grammar. However, if you vary your approach to teaching grammar, you will help more students to understand and use it, both in exams and in real-life situations. Using examples and having students guess grammar rules can help them learn and use the rules successfully. Seeing how the language works in context can have more impact than just memorising a grammar rule.

Here are three different ways to teach a grammar point. The examples here are about reported speech, which is commonly taught in secondary English textbooks, but you could use any grammar point:

  • This approach focuses mostly on the grammar rule. Mrs Aparajeeta writes the grammar point on the board (‘Reported Speech’) and gives them the following rule:
    • ‘If the verb in the original sentence is in the present tense in direct speech, it shifts to past tense in reported speech.’
  • After that, she tells students to do the exercises on reported speech in the textbook individually. She then asks them to memorise the rule for homework.
  • This approach is more interactive, as the teachers asks students to come up with examples. Mr Kapur writes the grammar point on the board (‘Reported Speech’) and explains the rule (as above). As he explains, he writes some examples of changing direct speech to indirect speech on the board, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Examples of direct and reported speech.
Introduction Direct speech Reported speech
Example Kemal said: ‘I want a samosa.’ Kemal said that he wanted a samosa.
Tense Simple past Simple present Simple past
  • Then he organises students into groups and asks them to write some sentences in direct speech. He asks groups to exchange their sentences and change them from direct speech to indirect speech.
  • In this approach, the teacher gets the students to try to guess what the rule is from examples. Mrs Agarwal writes a sentence using reported speech on the board:
    • ‘Sachin Tendulkar said he had never tried to compare himself to anyone else.’
  • She writes Sachin’s original sentence on the board:

    • ‘I have never tried to compare myself to anyone else.’

    She then asks students to tell her the differences between the sentences. She does this with a few more examples, and asks students if they can say what the rules of reported speech are. Once the students say their ideas, the teacher explains the rules, and asks her students to practise with some other sentences.

Over the next few lessons, try each of these approaches with your classes. After each lesson, think about what your students learnt with each approach: which students have learnt the grammar point and which students need more help to become confident with the grammar point? How will you help these students? Can they help each other?

Then compare your experiences with Resource 1, which gives the benefits and challenges of each approach listed above.

Case Study 1: Mr Talwar’s different approach to teaching English grammar

Mr Talwar teaches English to Class IX in a government school. He explained reported speech to his students, and wrote the rules and some examples on the board. Most of his students could recite the rules and examples, but then they did not get very good grades in their exam.

I wondered how I could help my students understand reported speech better. I could see that memorising the rules wasn’t helping them to understand the grammar point, and it wasn’t helping them to use it. They needed to see more examples of the structure, and they needed more practice in using reported speech. I wrote examples of some direct speech on the board, including a variety of tenses. To make it more interesting and more relevant to the students’ lives, I made up some sentences about a famous person and wrote these on the board in direct speech.

  • ‘I live in Mumbai with my wife and children.’
  • ‘My mother always believed I would be an actor.’
  • ‘I’ve just won an award.’
  • ‘I’m going to star in a new film next month.’

On the other side of the board, I wrote ‘Shah Rukh Khan said:’.

I asked the class, ‘What would these sentences be in reported speech?’ I didn’t think that they would know, but one student raised her hand and she gave me the answer for the first sentence:

I praised her, and wrote the sentence on the board. I asked her: ‘How did you know the correct answer?’ She said she wasn’t sure. I asked about the other sentences, and sometimes students knew how to put them in reported speech and sometimes they didn’t. As we did the activity, I explained the rules of how to form indirect speech.

Once I explained the rules and students had seen several examples, I thought that students would need more practice. After all, only a few students had participated so far. So I organised my students into pairs, and told them to write down some sentences in direct speech. I told them that they should imagine that the sentences were spoken by a famous person. I asked for some examples from the room:

I gave the class five minutes to write some sentences in direct speech. As they wrote, I walked around the room and checked some of the pairs. I kept checking to make sure that all of the students were busy writing! After five minutes, I told the students to stop and to exchange their sentences with the pair next to them. Once each pair had another pair’s sentences, I asked them to turn the sentences – the direct speech – into indirect speech. Again, I gave the class a time limit of ten minutes to change the sentences into indirect speech.

It would be good to be able to spend more time doing these activities, but I already have so much to fit into the classes – I couldn’t spend too much time on this. Anyway, giving a time limit makes sure that the students stay focused.

As the class worked, I walked around again and tried to check as many sentences as I could. I could see that some of the students were having problems, so I showed those pairs how to make the sentences. Of course, it was impossible to check and help every pair, but at least they all had a chance to think about the grammar point. And I’ve realised that students need to have some time to think and try to use grammar structures. When the ten minutes were up, I asked some students to give some examples, which gave me a chance to see if they understood, and it gave the class an opportunity to discuss the rules again.

Why this approach is important

2 Using the textbook to practise English grammar